Faces of the Flood: Leisha Clark

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Disappointment is the first word that comes to mind when Leisha Clark recalls the frustrating past ten months of her life. Disappointment in her situation and disappointment in her elected officials. Elected officials like Gov. John Bel Edwards, whose politics, as usual, have unnecessarily prolonged disaster recovery efforts.

Like many residents of North Baton Rouge, Clark is still working to piece her house, and her life, back together following the catastrophic flooding last August.

Clark never thought her home would flood, but when she saw cars stalling in rising water on a bridge near her home, she began to worry. Hours later, those cars were fully submerged.

When the rushing waters bent her garage door open and began to flood her two-story home, Clark gathered her family into her SUV to escape the water. Driving through yards and atop medians to avoid the flooded streets, it took Clark two hours to navigate her way to her mother’s home, which was typically only five minutes away.

They joined several other relatives at her mother’s dry home, and waited out the storm.

Inside of Leisha Clark’s flooded home

When the flood waters finally receded, reality set in that Clark’s entire first floor was destroyed. Two feet of water downstairs meant she would have to replace everything, for the second time in four years.

A fire engulfed the family home in 2013, and it took Clark eight months to return home and be made whole again.

The journey through flood recovery would not be as smooth. Clark was one of the thousands of flood victims without flood insurance, relying of FEMA money to help begin the home restoration process.

She stayed with 13 other relatives at her mother’s house, waiting for FEMA money to arrive.

“It was horrible,” Clark said. “When you’re used to having your space, fourteen people is a lot of people.”

Clark received a check of federal aid for $13,000 in October and immediately began working to stretch every penny as far as possible. She quickly realized the $13,000 would not come close to covering the full amount needed for repairs. $4,000 dollars to gut the house. $5,000 to install new sheetrock. Her FEMA money would not be enough to replace doors, baseboards, cabinets, furniture and appliances.

Leisha (center) and family

Clark cashed in her 401K, cleaned out her savings and still had to take out loans to continue to fund her home repairs, which ultimately cost around $36,000.

Her frustrations continued when the Shelter at Home Program, a government initiative designed to provide short-term, primitive repairs to allow homeowners to move back into their residence while they rebuild, provided her with sloppy electrical work, completed by an electrical apprentice, not a licensed electrician.

The obstacles continued to pile up, as Clark was laid off. The hotel where she worked suffered enough damage to have to shut down entire floors of rooms, causing business to slow down and employees to be let go.

Every day presented new challenges, but FEMA employees were unable to provide many answers.

“It’s not our job to make you whole.”

There was hope when the news of billions of federal relief dollars were on the way, but months later, the money had yet to be disbursed.

“When you heard the money was approved, everybody was happy,” Clark said. “After six months you’re going, I’m still not in my house, still don’t have any money. FEMA’s saying ‘it’s not our job to make you whole.’”

“I campaigned for [Edwards], and I voted for him,” Clark said. “I feel like he didn’t have any sense of urgency.”

Clark wondered if her area of town was neglected because of its socio-economic standing. More affluent areas in and around Baton Rouge were being rebuilt at a quicker pace. Even in Baton Rouge, the backyard of the governor, she felt forgotten.

 “I’m very disappointed because I thought [Edwards] cared more about the people.”

“I’ll be working for another year, trying to get my house straight.”

Clark completed enough repairs to move back into her house on March 1, but she admits the restoration is only about 70 percent complete. Through trial and error, she picked up new skills to speed up the rebuilding process, even painting the entire downstairs herself.

An unfortunate ultimatum

She filled out the Restore Louisiana homeowner assistance online survey the first day it was available, April 10, nearly eight months after the severe storms in August. In May, Clark was informed she would be reimbursed $3,000 for her repairs in Phase III of the program. The survey was hailed as “the first step toward applying for recovery assistance,”1 but Clark questions why the process was delayed.

“I wouldn’t be in the debt that I am in had they [reimbursed money] months ago because I would have had the money to get stuff done.”

Clark is one of many flooded homeowners who faced an unfortunate ultimatum during the recovery process: do nothing to your home and let it go to waste, or be proactive and begin repairing your home, and potentially not be completely reimbursed.

“I campaigned for [Edwards], and I voted for him,” Clark said. “I feel like he didn’t have any sense of urgency.”

Rather than sit on her hands and milk the system living in a hotel paid for with federal money, Clark worked tirelessly to make her home livable again. She spent hours there daily because she was scared someone may try to vandalize or burglarize her home.

“I’m not asking for anything other than what I spent,” Clark said despondently. “I almost wish I hadn’t done any work because then I might be able to get enough to finish my house.”

Exterior of Leisha’s flooded home

Disappointed at the incompetence

For Clark, the whole experience made her feel the governor and his administration were too incompetent to handle the disaster relief efforts. From the Shelter at Home program to the length of time it took the state to find a contractor to administer the money, Clark feels a lot of time and money was wasted. Drive down any street in Clark’s neighborhood and it’s hard not to spot a FEMA trailer sitting outside at least a few homes. Clark thinks the trailers are a waste of money because they typically cost more than the houses in her neighborhood.

“I could have lost my house just because they’re playing games,” Clark said.

While the governor and his administration continue to play games, Louisiana residents are struggling to rebuild their lives. Nearly a year after historic flooding in south Louisiana, and over a year since the north Louisiana floods, the recovery process is still ongoing, much to the chagrin of all the victims. Rebuilding takes time, but the governor and his team have squandered far too much since August.

“I’m very disappointed because I thought [Edwards] cared more about the people.”

 

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Footnotes:

1 http://restore.la.gov/initial-survey-for-homeowner-assistance-begins-april-10/